Forest Foragers: The Life of Efe Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo; part two

Over the next few weeks, the Efe women are in Lese fields harvesting rice, and the men spend most of each day helping Taki and other village men cut the trees in what will be the coming year's fields. Food is plentiful these days, and the camp is filled from dawn to dusk with the sound of young girls pounding the husks from rice with wooden pestles and mortars borrowed from the village. It rains only every fourth or fifth day now that the dry season is at its peak; the rains won't return until late February or early March. The streams and rivers, swollen to overflowing during the heavy rains of the wet season (August through November), are now receding, and fish are trapped in small pools cut off from the main flow of the river. With the rice harvest nearing an end, it's a good time to go fishing.

"Aaayyeee!" shrieks Tufu as the pectoral spine of a catfish pricks her palm. She drops the slippery, squirming fish into her basket, woven from vines her father had split and shaved into long ribbons. The girls had spent the morning building upstream and downstream dams to seal off a swampy section of the small stream. After bailing the water over the downstream dam, the girls methodically search the mud with their hands for fish. They do well, and each basket is filled with a dozen or more fish. Kebi, the catfish, are particularly good when smoked and cooked in palm oil with a little hot pepper. Dacala, on the other hand, are flied whole: they are mostly bones and taste like mud. When the girls are sure that they've cleaned out the fishing patch, they dump their baskets on the bank and walk to a deeper part of the stream to wash off the mud and green algae clinging to their skin. Tufu dives in, surfaces, and calls to her sister. Thigh deep in the river, standing a few feet apart, the sisters cup their hands in front of them and pound the water. The other girls join in, creating a syncopated timpanist's vamp. Tufu adds her voice to the rhythm of the water drumming, and for a few minutes these impromptu percussionists rival Tito Puentes for style, flare, and self-enjoyment. On the way back from the stream, Tufu passes through Taki's village and leaves a small parcel of kebi for his wife.

By the middle of February the trees in the new fields have been felled and are beginning to dry out. The men in Taki's village wait as long as they dare before trying to burn their fields. The drier the field, the hotter the burn, the larger the planting area, and the bigger the harvest. But waiting is like gambling: wait too long and the rains will arrive, soaking the field and making it nearly impossible to burn. This year, everyone is unlucky; a downpour drenches the unburned fields for two consecutive days. Even with the camp's help to clear fallen brush by hand, Taki's field is less than a third the size of last year's. Worse still, with little ash to fertilize the soil, crop yields will be poor. This is bad news for the Efe. If Taki's village begins to run out of food before the next harvest is ready, he will keep what is left for his family. Kebe and others in camp will have to rely on the meager forest foods available at that time of year, and the exchange relationship between Taki's village and Kebe's camp will suffer, at least for awhile.

Hunger in April, May and into June is quite common in the Ituri when last year's crop runs out before the sweet potatoes and peanuts -- planted in the new field in February or March -- are ready for harvest. Three years ago, Taki's crop was too small to exchange with the camp and Kebe hustled to trade with any Lese possessed of extra food. Kebe's baby died when his wife's milk dried up due to insufficient food. In years where no one has agricultural food to trade, Kebe and his family have had to travel out of the area in search of an exchange partner. If the hunger season is really severe, Ere like Kebe often decide to clear small fields of cassava as insurance for the following year. Though Kebe sometimes clears and plants his own field, he chooses not to most of the time, preferring instead his traditional exchange relationship with Taki.

Taki's field is small this year and the harvest of peanuts in early July is not quite the feast time it often is. Nevertheless, the taste of hot-pepper peanut sauce is a welcome treat. At least the early rains arrived before the rofo trees had set flower; maybe honey season will be good this year. Kebe hopes for an abundance of honey: he knows his family will need to fatten up to tide them over next year's expected hunger period.

Over the next weeks the hunters are vigilant in their search for signs of honey. In early August, Bokande returns to camp from a monkey hunt and tells AfaNjede that he was in a large patch of rofo beyond the Malinga river and the ground was covered with a fragrant mat of white flowers. Getting more and more animated, he tells the camp that the sound of bees was everywhere, and that he had located at least five hives. The camp begins to buzz at the prospect of moving away from the village in search of honey. For three days, everyone in camp is working in Taki's field -- harvesting the last of the peanuts and planting the rain-fed rice -- or promising his and other Lese families honey in exchange for as much cassava, plantains, and other foods as they can spare.

With borrowed aluminum pots and empty plastic bottles strapped to the top of baskets heavy with food, the women follow the men out of camp, across the Meribopa river, and along a long series of forest ridges heading east to the Malinga river and the rofo forest. Though most of the forest is composed of a mixture of trees, some species, like Gilbertiodendron and Julbernardia (rofo), form almost pure stands. These islands of uniformity in a sea of diversity are great places for honey when the trees flower. The men eventually reach an overgrown clearing which was a honey camp five or six years ago. When the women arrive about an hour later, the men have removed most of the vegetation and are just cutting the few remaining stumps, leaving a fairly smooth arena in which to erect camp. The women drop their baskets, grab machetes, and head off into the surrounding forest to cut saplings and leaves to build the huts. By nightfall most families have at least a wicker shell of a hut, half-tiled with tilipi leaves. While the women gathered materials for the huts, the men had found and raided a hive. They were stingless meliponin bees, and the honey was thin and a little fermented. Still, it was honey, and the mood of the camp rose as everyone got a taste of the first of the year's ambrosia.

The men head off the next morning to gather honey and the women leave to search for wild yams at a place called the hill-of-yams. Tufu and her sister find a tendril of tewe, a Dioscorea yam, wound round a Rothmannia whitfieldii, the fruit of which is used as a dye for face painting. Tracing the vine through the tangle of shrubs, Tufu finds where it enters the soil. Wielding her apopao like a spade, she begins to scoop the soil away in search of the buried tuber. With most of her upper-body in the hole she's dug, Tufu finally uncovers the bundle of thorny roots that protect the yam. Using her apopao as a machete again, she cuts away the thorn cage to expose an enormous, knarled tuber. Working carefully, she cuts out a section, hoists it out of the ground, and passes it to her sister, who cleans off the clods of dirt and drops it into the basket she made while Tufu was digging. In another 10 minutes, the tuber's lobes have all been extracted and more than 12 kilos of yam rest in the basket.

The sisters start looking for their mother. En route they find another, smaller yam; though easier to extract, it is highly poisonous and must be par-boiled and leached in a river for two days before it can be cooked and eaten safely. Not long ago, neighbors of Taki's ate one of these yams thinking it a sweet variety. Ngofe, his wife, and two of their three children died from the poison, as did the goat and several chickens that ate uncooked peelings. Foraging in the forest is always a challenge and requires experience and care to avoid potentially disastrous mistakes. ImaTufu is delighted that her girls have done so well; she has spent most of the day dislodging a tuber that was wedged under the root of a tree, only to find the yam badly riddled with insect larvae. As the women head back to camp, they hear a faint "Ooo-ohh" carrying through the forest; one of the men has probably found a honey tree and is calling the others over to help.

It's remarkable how attuned the Efe are to their surroundings; they can detect the sound and movement of bees high in the canopy. Kebe's eyes are squinted against the glare of the sun as he tries to show Bokande where the bees are entering a small cavity in a tree limb more than 20 meters above the ground. Bokande yells to the other men that it really is meli this time -- the bees are apis, the stinging kind that make the best honey. Kebe starts a fire and puts together a leaf-wrapped smudge pot to keep the bees anaesthetized as their hive is pilfered. Bokande tosses the smoking leaf bundle over his shoulder and tucks a small ax into the raphia belt holding his loin-cloth. Wrapping his arms around a narrow tree, he hops his feet up onto the trunk. Using the vine figure-of-eight between his feet for traction, he straightens his knees and wraps his arms around the trunk a little higher up. With surprising speed, he ratchets his way up the tree until he nears the top. Heaving on the upper branches, Bokande begins to swing himself (and the top of the tree) from side to side. With each oscillation, he gets closer and closer to the large adjacent tree containing the honey. Reaching impossibly far out, he grabs a handful of vine on the honey tree, lets the small tree snap back, and swings free for a second before clambering round on top of the limb. As casually as a circus aerialist, Bokande stands upright on the immense branch and walks toward the hive, trailing a wispy tail of smoke. Stuffing the smoke bundle into the cavity to calm the bees, he enlarges the entrance with quick and accurate strokes of the ax. Soon honey rains down as Bokande pitches chunks of heavily laden comb down to the men, who catch most of them in "catcher's mitts" improvised from large tilipi leaves. The honey gets everywhere -- it's in Kebe's hair, dripping down Bokande's arms and chest, and all over Kombuta's face -- and irate bees are crawling on everyone. Bokande is stung dozens of times as the bees get entangled in his hair, but all he seems to do is mutter "tsk" and pluck out the stingers.

Kebe smiles as he bites into a piece of new, crumbly white comb filled with clear, sweet honey. Bokande descends easily and stuffs a lump of grub comb, the texture of loose scrambled eggs, into his mouth. The men eat prodigious quantities of comb -- clear new honey, pungent orange pollen, or the dark and fragrant honey that develops over time as the moisture evaporates. As the men head back to camp, their combined leaf packages of honey weigh no more than one or two kilos. They always binge on honey at the start of the season and only gradually take more back to camp. Energized by the honey, the men encourage the dogs to rough -course through the forest in an impromptu hunt. They are lucky today. The dogs find a sleeping bay duiker between the buttresses of a ndau (Irvingia gabonensis). Kebe shoots it in the side and it lurches off, wrenching out the arrow and a meter of so of intestine. The stricken animal doesn't make it far before the dogs corner it, and Kebe dispatches it with a couple of whacks of the honey ax.

The mood in camp that night is exuberant, and the men playfully compete to tell the best story of the day's hunt. Kebe pops a piece of boiled meat into his mouth and joins the fun. He lopes around camp making the bleating sound of a duiker, magnificently recreating the sights and sounds of the hunt. Tabaembi, the camp's best raconteur, takes over with a hilarious story about Kebe, and soon the camp is laughing uproariously. With an almost full moon lighting the camp, the storytelling turns into dancing. Two boys have improvised a drum by placing a piece of bark over a hole in the ground, pegging a vine to the ground across the bark, and stretching it into a taught V with a notched stick. Sitting opposite each other, they pound on the vine, filling the camp with a rhythm that has everyone moving around the fire or swaying in place. A group of girls add to the percussion by clapping their hands, and the rest of the women weave together their voices. When the moon sets, a massive bonfire casts flickering light on the bodies of the dancers, who shuffle in a circle as individuals spin off in a series of gyrating loops and rejoin the circle farther back. The dancing never really stops, but by dawn exuberance is clearly waning and the drummers have long since fallen asleep.

Kebe and the other families will stay in the honey camp until the heavy rains begin and the threat of windstorms -- and falling trees and branches -- necessitates a move from the forest. In these few short weeks of abundant honey, everyone in camp will gain weight, and the pots and baskets of comb carried back to Taki's village will provide for weeks or months of cultivated crops in exchange.

Day after day and year after year, Efe like Kebe have tracked the prevailing weather and vagaries in food availability, adapting to make the best of living in the often unforgiving Ituri forest. But what does the future hold for Kebe, Ima Tufu, and their family? In the Ituri, Lese villages and Efe camps were scattered along rivers until the 1940s, when the Belgians forcibly relocated them along the roads built and maintained by local labor. With the roads came commercial agriculture, wage labor, a monetary economy, and industrial goods, which quickly replaced the bark clothing and less durable clay pots. For thirty years the Efe and Lese have adapted to, and become reliant on, these new economic conditions. With independence in 1960 -- most markedly after Zairization in the 1970s, when expatriate owners of plantations and factories were replaced with Mobutu sycophants -- the market economy began to decay, and efforts to maintain the roads diminished. By the late 1980s, the road system had collapsed, and commercial agriculture ground to a halt as farmers were unable to transport their crops to market. Families slid back into poverty and a premonetized barter economy. Schools and clinics closed because of government neglect and lack of local operating funds. The abandoned arts of pottery, soap- and salt-making were revived as people lost the means to buy industrially-manufactured substitutes. In 1997, when things looked like they could get no worse, civil ware broke out. Laurent Kabila's rapid race to Kinshasa followed massive looting and abuses by President Mobutu's fleeing troops. The twelve months of relative calm when Kabila took power in June 1997 have since been crushed by a much more dangerous and volatile civil war.

With little education, no history of political organization, no economic clout, and no recourse within an impossibly corrupt legal system, the Efe and Lese are at the mercy of roving bands of soldiers from the different factions involved in the civil war, are easily bilked out of valuable forest resources such as timber and ivory, and are pressured into panning gold or portering goods for better-educated and wealthier Congolese. Post-civil-war Congo is unlikely to ameliorate this situation: present economic elites are apt to be future government officials. Even if the next head of state is a libertarian bent on ensuring social equity and governance by the majority for the majority, it may be decades before present systems of patronage and sycophancy are replaced with transparent, representative, and accountable government. Without the latter, the Efe and Lese within the Ituri will not achieve a meaningful level of self-determination and are unlikely to have any influence over government decisions on who benefits from resources found within their forest.

The Efe and Lese have little hope in the near future of seeing their economies revitalize, their children assured of health care and education, or their lives retain a level of physical and economic security. Their aspirations, concerns and needs continue to be more similar than different from ours. Kebe and ImaTufu spend time teaching their kids, are concerned that their rowdy teenage son will never be a responsible adult, and worry about their health and security when they get old. Moreover, just as the Efe and Lese are seeking ways to take responsibility for security and development in their back-yard, hundreds of communities in the U.S. are getting together to look for ways to rebuild their neighborhoods, fight fight crime, and ensure that their children have access to quality schooling and health care. Though separated by thousands of miles, communities in the Ituri and in inner-city and rural America are, surprisingly, similar.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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